UC Berkeley professors receive awards from National Academy of Sciences

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Two UC Berkeley professors were honored Wednesday by the National Academy of Sciences, or NAS, for their research contributions to science.

Jennifer Doudna, a campus professor of chemistry and molecular and cell biology, received the 2018 NAS Award in Chemical Sciences for co-inventing the CRISPR gene-editing technology. Prasad Raghavendra, a campus associate professor of electrical engineering and computer sciences, shared the inaugural 2018 Michael and Sheila Held Prize with David Steurer, a professor of computer science at ETH Zurich.

Doudna is widely known for co-discovering CRISPR — the genome-editing tool that allows scientists to edit genes by cutting out unwanted DNA sequences and replacing them with the desired strands — with her colleague Emmanuelle Charpentier. NAS honored Doudna for recent discoveries she made in regards to the behavior of RNA, which plays a pivotal role in CRISPR.

“(Doudna is) one of these people that have really made a huge impact in science and revolutionized the way many people do science,” said Eva Nogales, head of biochemistry, biophysics and structural biology division in the molecular and cell biology, or MCB, department.

Doudna has focused her scientific career on studying RNA. According to Nogales, RNA’s vital role in the gene-editing process inspired Doudna to develop CRISPR. Nogales added that Doudna’s work is an example of one of the few scientific breakthroughs to gain public awareness.

Marla Feller, head of the neurobiology division in the MCB department, said Doudna’s voice has reached an “international level” of importance because of her achievements and that the renowned researcher uses her platform to address the ethical issues of gene editing.

“(Doudna has) taken a real leading role to make sure that the ethics in this work are discussed in public forums as much as possible,” Feller said.

Raghavendra was honored by NAS for his research in theoretical computer sciences and the limits of efficient algorithms.

“It’s an exciting area where a lot of really interesting and deep, old areas of mathematics and ideas from lots of different areas come into play,” Raghavendra said.

Raghavendra and Steurer were awarded for their contributions to areas of “optimization and complexity” in computer science, according to the NAS website. Their work in the study of algorithms addresses “hard” optimization problems by using “semidefinite programming” to find the best approximate solution to these problems.

Campus professor of electrical engineering and computer sciences Luca Trevisan said Raghavendra’s findings were “foundational” to computer science.

“In a way, foundational results can take the test of time (more than) results that are immediately applicable,” Trevisan said. “The award committee was looking for a timeless result, and (I) believe that Prasad’s work is that.”

Contact Adrianna Buenviaje at [email protected] and follow her on Twitter at @adriannaDC.